Featured Profile: Laura Wright
A super legacy
Recognising talent and giving staff opportunities to flourish hits close to home for the newly-minted chief executive of NGS Super. Laura Wright tells Karren Vergara how she is paying it forward.

NGS Super boasts an impressive alumni of female leaders who take the reins of some of the country's largest superannuation funds.

Debby Blakey (chief executive, HESTA), Dascia Bennett (chief executive, Super SA), and Jo Townsend (chief executive, Funds SA) have served in a senior capacity at Sydney-based NGS at some point in their careers. The latest to join the fold is Laura Wright.

It's about how successfully you build the team and give them the opportunities and resources to deliver.
Industry super, Wright says, is a sector whereby women appointed to leadership roles have made headway and great contributions.

Among them is Mavis Robertson, who helped pioneer not-for-profit funds, and is an icon of the superannuation industry; while Louise Davidson (ACSI chief executive) received an Australia Day honour this year.

Wright encourages women working across the industry to not "be frightened of putting yourself first".

"I've had opportunities presented to me and have gone with the flow and taken them as they come," she says. Even the sideway moves can be invaluable, she adds.

Looking back on her career path, Wright says it was anything but standard.

After completing an arts degree at Sydney University and majoring in geography and political science, Wright scored two cadetships. The first was at Handicrafts of Asia (which no longer exists), a store that sold trendy clothes and artefacts. The other was at Myer (or Farmers as it was formerly known).

She then went into the family business, a hardware shop called Eastern Suburbs Lime and Cement Store located in Rose Bay for about four years.

"Then I decided to go back to university to do a diploma of education and a diploma of librarianship."

Her only job in teaching was at Marist Brothers Kogarah, an all-boys school south of Sydney.

"While I was there I became involved in the independent education union, which eventually led to a job as their first women's officer and organiser," she recalls.

"I was involved in women's issues during that period, as well as servicing the members from an industrial perspective, providing them information and visiting the schools."

Wright was also part of the staff super fund, which eventually rolled in to NGS Super.

In starting up the fund, the general secretary at the time saw the majority of members in the union were women and pushed for more women to be represented on the board.

NGS has since maintained a strong representation of women on its board. Currently, 50% of seats are held by women - surpassing APRA's average of 32.4%.

"That's how I got my start in super. I was on the board of NGS Super and then a few years later, I got the opportunity to apply for a job at Suncorp when they bought the Nexis business off National Mutual," she says.

Wright went on to work in managerial roles in superannuation that included Print Super (now Media Super), AMIST Super, FIRST Super, AMP, Australian Administration Services (AAS) and Superpartners.

"I can never complain about my career. I've been really happy with everything I have been able to do and I've enjoyed each job I've had and tried to make the most of it," she says.

As chief executive, Wright sees her role as a "huge privilege."

She describes it as more holistic and requiring an overarching view. A lot of her time is spent making sure the organisation has a strong structure for staff and a rigorous approach to recruitment.

In describing her team, Wright is quick to give credit where credit is due. Working with a great and experienced management team - across all levels of the organisation - is something she enjoys most. "I've always felt you are only as good as the people around you," she says.

Part of her role is also to encourage staff and find ways to maximise their potential.

"It's about how successfully you build the team and give them the opportunities and resources to deliver. That is something close to my heart and is very important."

What really makes a difference between a good and bad organisation - other than having leaders who provide consistent messaging about strategy and direction - is the quality of the people, she says.

"That's why I was so thrilled to get this role in this organisation because it's possible to work in that way."

This becomes increasingly difficult in larger organisations, she says, pointing to the "dysfunction" in some of the big banks.

"You can have a good chief executive but pulling together disparate teams in a big organisation is even more challenging."

Wright commends the super fund for its culture of recognising talent and internally promoting staff and presenting them with opportunities.

"That's important to me because I have been the beneficiary of that," she adds.

Wright has been associated with NGS for about 15 years. She was a director between 1988 and 1995 and during that period she served as chair for two years.

For the last 11 years she has been working in the trustee office, firstly as general manager of operations and more recently as senior manager of governance.

About this time last year Anthony Rodwell-Ball, who served as chief executive for almost a decade, decided to retire in March 2018. At the time NGS was also working through a merger with QIEC Super, the Queensland fund for the non-government education, childcare and community services industry.

The board foresaw that the time to find a replacement via a competitive recruitment process could take three to six months. It asked Wright to step in as acting chief executive.

"Because I had been involved in two previous mergers with NGS they thought it would be good to have that sort of stability and leadership at the top," she says.

Seeing that Wright was performing well and the merger was going smoothly, the board decided not to go to market and offered her the permanent role in September last year.

The merger is expected to be completed in early May. This will bring total membership to about 125,000 to create $10.3 billion of funds under management.

"We have been very happy with the level of professionalism all parties have approached the merger with and everything is on track," she says.

For the future, Wright is ensuring the fund continues to deliver on member outcomes and remain very committed to the independent and Catholic school sector, and community-focused organisations.

Wright says it's about putting members "first, front and centre of everything we do" and positioning the organisation to continue to do that in a much more competitive environment.

In the broader superannuation landscape, Wright foresees more mergers taking place and the bigger funds becoming larger in the future. But there will always be room for a fund like NGS, she says.

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